For most of its history Bangladesh was a part of greater India. What is now Bangladesh was first unified under ancient Aryan influence and from these origins came the great Bengali ethnic population of some 240 million today. For thousands of years Bangladesh ebbed and flowed to the rhythm of greater Indian imperial politics and its Hindu religion.
Islam arrived peacefully in the 8th Century via traders. But then in the 14th Century greater India was conquered by Muslim armies. Most Hindus resisted conversion to the new faith. However, over time, and especially during the era of Moghul rule from 1526 till 1857, the Bengali people became the greatest missionary success story in all of Islam. Today, at over 200 million people, it is the largest single block of Muslims in the world, and the largest people group in the world unreached with the Gospel.
In the 15th Century Portuguese traders arrived. Jesuit missionaries soon followed. They were eventually followed by the British who conquered all Moghul lands and Bengali peoples through a policy of divide and rule. The British set up their capital in the Bengali heartland at Calcutta. In 1786 a Baptist missionary arrived in Calcutta by the name of William Carey, who translated the Bible into Bengali and four other languages! He started schools, universities and charities for the poor. He is now considered the father of modern Protestant Christian missions and is still considered a great hero to the Bengali people. 2018 marks exactly 500 years since Catholic missionaries arrived with Portuguese traders.
Independence from India came in 1948 as part of Pakistan called East Pakistan. Independence from Pakistan came in 1971 after a bitter civil war. The Bengalis finally had their own nation and in 1988 Islam was declared its national religion.
Bangladesh is now a desperately poor country of some 170 million people with an average income is just 1% of the USA. Needless to say it is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Since independence it has been ruled mostly by two dynastic political families drawn from the upper class. Since 1991 it has been ruled by the two women who represent these dynasties today.
It is 90% Muslim, 9% Hindu and less than 1% Christian. However, most Muslims follow “folk Islam” which is a blend of Sufism, Hinduism and indigenous culture. Radical Islam is on the rise and their goal is convert all Bengalis to Islam. A decade ago radical Islamist parties were banned from politics and several leaders executed.
3. Evangelism Highlights
Following a half century where the church has surprisingly grown much faster than the population, today some 0.4% of Bangladeshi citizens, or 0.75 million people, are now an active follower of Jesus. This is up from 0.05% in 1960. Fascinatingly, Bangladesh has seen Christianity take root with great cultural sensitivity, which means many followers of Jesus are now embedded within the traditional Islamic cultural structures and institutions. Some even call themselves perfect Muslims. Up until the year 2000 most new Christians are from Hindu backgrounds, but then reports started to flow in of large numbers of new Muslim Background (MBB) converts, especially among the young. The tipping point seems to have been reached and within this century followers of Jesus could top 10-20 million. The non-Muslim hill tribe peoples close to India are also coming to faith in large numbers. The Santal, Munda, Khasi and Garo peoples are now more than 10% evangelical.
In practice this means the Christian practice in Bangladesh is ethnically divided into the underground Church, which consists of those who converted from Islam, and the visible Church, which consists of those who converted from Hinduism. Moreover, the underground Church can be divided into those who worship in secret and those who worship openly, such as when an entire village converts to Christianity, which is reportedly happening a lot in rural areas. Poverty among the general Christian population is severe, even by Bangladeshi standards.
Persecution is also very severe. Many new believers are disowned by their spouses, children, employers and community. Beatings are common and the police usually turn a blind eye to the violence. The rising tide of radical Islam is particularly brutal against those that leave Islam, and toward all Christian evangelists. This is why many new believers stay inside the Muslim culture once converted, and this is actually speeding up the growth. Open Doors says Bangladesh one of the worst countries in the world for persecution, making active Bangladeshi evangelists some of the spiritually strongest in the world, sometimes being murdered for their cause. I personally met one evangelist in 2009 who had been introduced to Jesus years earlier by an Australian. When I met him he had already brought 12,000 Muslims to Jesus!
4. Prayer Points: The Harvest is huge, but the labourers are few.
Pray for the spiritual trickle to become a flood, there are signs this is starting!
Pray for the evangelists who daily defy the culture to bring good news to a suffering people.
Pray for the underground church to continue to penetrate Islamic culture.
Pray for internet evangelism to reach the young.
Pray for creative ways to reach the 50% who are functionally illiterate.
Pray for the Indian Bengali speaking evangelists cross the border to spread the good news.
Pray for the hundreds of Christian NGO’s helping to alleviate suffering.
Pray for the radical Muslims to go from a Saul to a Paul.
Pray that current growth continues and we will see a flood of Bangladeshi Christians by the end of this century.